Editors' Pick: Originally published Dec. 30.
When we first tested the device we encountered major operational problems. But recently BlackBerry updated a number of its proprietary PRIV apps and that has changed our opinion of the phone.
The PRIV hardware is quite slick and the phone feels great in use. It has a 5.4-inch (2560 by 1440 pixels), dual-curved, AMOLED touchscreen. It curves toward both edges of the phone but not as much as Samsung's Galaxy edge designs. But we found that when you tap on the screen with your finger, it makes a hollow sound, due to the fact the phone has a physical, slide-down keyboard and there's an empty space behind the screen.
We have taken some really nice photos with the 18 MP rear camera, but the camera is somewhat slow when you want to take multiple snapshots. Speakers are below the keyboard and sound terrific. The battery is capable of providing all day use, although PRIV does get quite warm with heavy use.
The processor is a dual-core, 1,8 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 -- good, but not in the same class as the Snapdragon 810 found in other premium phones. It's attached to 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of onboard storage. There's also an available microSD expansion card slot.
The reason you buy a BlackBerry is for the keyboard, the overall security and the famous BlackBerry messaging system. The PRIV's keyboard is similar to the the one on the Passport. It's great and BlackBerry fans will love it. Everyone else who is now used to typing directly on the screen will love the standard on-screen keyboard.
The security on the phone is top notch, as it runs special software that monitors everything. BlackBerry's unique messaging system, known as Hub., gathers all of your email accounts, messages (text, SMS, Facebook and Twitter tweets etc.) in one place. But Hub didn't do everything we wanted it to - like archiving messages on my Gmail accounts.
The phone runs on Android Lollipop and without having access to the latest version of Android, it's at a slight disadvantage with recent Nexus models.
We also encountered a number of software glitches that we haven't seen on any other smartphone in ages, including some operations slowing down, and in some cases, a lot. Apps take much longer to open and close. Screens won't refresh. After a few minutes, the phone's screen completely freezes, all icons disappear and a reboot is needed. Unfortunately, this happened way too often.
Overall, the PRIV is a mixed bag -- nice hardware with some questionable software. Priced at $699, and available only from AT&T, BlackBerry's PRIV could be a hard sell until issues can be addressed.
Hardware Score: 8.5/10
Software Score: 7.5/10
Overall Score: 8.0/10
The day after this PRIV review was published, BlackBerry contacted me to see if they could rectify the problems I had encountered. The plan was to have me speak with an engineer/expert to try to fix my main problem: the operating system would freeze and require a total reboot after being on for 8 hours.
At the same time, BlackBerry had been working on updates for the phone. In the following week the company released an improved version of its version of the Android operating system (5.1.1). That helped a little. At that point it took only 9-10 hours before the phone had to be restarted.
A few days later there was a notification on the phone screen that just about all of BlackBerry's specialized apps for the phone, including BBM, BBM Meetings, BlackBerry Calendar, Camera, Device Hub, Launcher and Services, had new and improved versions available for download from the Google Play Store. The process took less than 10 minutes to download and install and changed my PRIV from a dud to a very nice smartphone. And it was accomplished without needing one-on-one expert assistance.
In the past 2-3 weeks there was only one time, early on, that I needed to restart the phone. After that it has been a rock-solid performer. It's fast, stable and now the battery appears to last a full day on a charge. PRIV's usability/likeability quotient has jumped from zero to nearly 100% in very short order.
I can now recommend PRIV to everyone. It's not perfect (nothing is) but it is now capable of providing a large dose of what both Android and BlackBerry fans would want from a smartphone. Yes, it's somewhat heavy and yes it's expensive. But it's also a good-looking device that's fun to use now that everything works exactly as you would expect. Even the slide-down keyboard makes sense now that the phone works properly. Plus, an update to Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) is reportedly coming very soon.
If PRIV turns out to be any kind of success for the company, expect less expensive, Android-based BlackBerry devices in the future. If not, at least now, PRIV can be remembered fondly.
New Hardware Score: 8.5/10
New Software Score: 8.7/10
New Overall Score: 8.6/10